Following death, Uber halts autonomous car testing until further notice

20 Mar 2018

An Uber autonomous car. Image: steve52/Shutterstock

Following the first recorded death of a pedestrian involving an autonomous car, Uber has decided to halt all testing until further notice.

The World Health Organisation estimates that more than a quarter of a million pedestrians die on the world’s roads each year, but the death of a woman in the city of Tempe, Arizona, is the first recorded case of a pedestrian death involving an experimental autonomous car.

Reports emerged over the weekend that 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was struck by one such vehicle owned by Uber on 18 March at approximately 10pm local time.

A human was present in the vehicle during the accident, but she was reported as being unharmed.

A report issued by the Tempe Police Department said: “The vehicle was travelling northbound just south of Curry Road when a female walking outside of the crosswalk crossed the road from west to east when she was struck by the Uber vehicle.

“Herzberg was transported to a local area hospital where she passed away from her injuries.”

Given the intense scrutiny that comes with the testing of autonomous car technology on public roads, Uber has confirmed that it is now halting all testing of the cars, but has not given any indication when they will be back on the road.

“Our hearts go out to the victim’s family,” an Uber spokesperson said to The Verge. “We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident.”

Uber’s recently appointed CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, took to Twitter to offer his condolences to Herzberg’s family, and confirmed that the company is now working with the city’s police department to get to the bottom of what happened.

Shaken consumer confidence

For the sake of the investigation, the car’s huge collection of sensors and cameras will likely provide a clear picture of the moments before the incident.

The US National Transportation Safety Board has also confirmed that it is sending a special crash investigation team to see for itself what happened.

Speaking with Bloomberg, Jason Levine, executive director of the advocacy group the Center for Auto Safety, said the incident will significantly damage the image of autonomous cars in the public eye.

“As always, we want the facts but, based on what is being reported, this is exactly what we have been concerned about and what could happen if you test self-driving vehicles on city streets,” he said.

“It will set consumer confidence in the technology back years, if not decades. We need to slow down.”

An Uber autonomous car. Image: steve52/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic